Cynthia Heelan

Essays About Our Work


As leaders, if we come from our hearts, our authentic selves, we can breathe new passion and purpose and then human capacity into our organizations. Creating a place of joy, peace, and high morale that facilitates innovation and creativity relies at least in part, on the leader’s spirit; an ability to create space for and then respond to, the deepest concerns of staff.

Bolman and Deal in their book, Leading with Soul describe two dominant images we have of leaders we hope will support vital institutions.  One is the charismatic person with stature and vision and the other is the skilled problem solver who uses information, programs and policies to create vitality (Bolman, 1995).  Both are important in a leadership role, yet they speak more of technique and content than of the essence of leadership.   The essence of leadership is to bring peace, joy, job satisfaction, high morale, innovation and creativity to our own work and to that of our organization.  We can transform ourselves, our relationships, our students, our classrooms, our employees, and our colleges.   We can lead our organizations to become truly vibrant and productive.

Leading from Essence to Action through Self Mastery

     One of the most important aspects of leading from our Essence is self-mastery.  It is self-mastery that is the hallmark of the authentic leader.  (Braham, 1999-2004), (Cashman, 1998), the Naropa Institute (Susan Skjei, 2006), the Center for Authentic Leadership (C. f. A. Leadership, 2005), the Shambala Institute (S. I. f. A. Leadership, 2006) and the Carlson School of Management (Management, 2006) all identify similar aspects of self mastery:  Knowing our purpose in life, knowing our values, telling ourselves the truth about all that we are, knowing when to change, taking time for reflection and listening to ourselves, listening to others, and engaging in practices that promote self-discipline.  These elements are all aspects of our Essential Selves, our Essence, the source of our creativity and our personal truth.

     Knowing our purpose in life gives order and meaning to it.  Years ago, my stepdaughter asked me to describe my philosophy of life.  I responded quickly that I saw myself making life as peaceful and happy and full as possible for those in my sphere of influence.  She replied (having just studied this concept in high school social studies), “How very 50’s of you”.  I continue to be grateful for my upbringing in the 1950’s and my persistent pursuit of doing my best for the world in my sphere of influence.    Part of knowing our purpose involves searching for wisdom and seeking to be increasingly conscious of our Essence (our true selves, our inner teacher, our soul); and an important aspect of our life-purpose needs to be to express our Essence to those around us.  This concept of Essence is described more fully in chapter one of this book.

     Knowing our values helps us to make difficult decisions because we act from our own Essential self rather than from a code that comes from some external source.  As an institution we articulate our values and share them with our communities, and we work to live by those values in our relationships with our constituents and our colleagues.  Being clear about our own personal values can provide the same resource to us as individual leaders, and they can help us be open to creative ways of, for example, resolving conflict when they challenge us.  Yes, leaders make mistakes.  Even when we listen, gather information and are present to our constituents, we make decisions that have unintended consequences.  Our only basis for a clear conscience at those times, is the knowledge we decided based on our basic values and were true to ourselves.  When asked in an job interview about times when one constituent, say the faculty, wants you to go one way, and another constituent group, the administration wants you to go the other way; which way would you go?  Wang replied, “I will have to go the way my heart directs me to go.”  If she followed the faculty and things didn’t work, there would be regret.  If she followed the administration and things didn’t work, there would be regret.  If she followed her personal truth, she could know she did the best she could, and she could learn something new from her experience (Wang, 2006).

      Telling ourselves the truth about who we are and the things we want, including our desire to overcome our personal fear or weakness, allows us to manage our shadow selves and prevent it from casting its darkness on others.  When we do not take the time to be conscious of our total self, (our light and our shadow), our actions and expressions tend to be from our ego and false to our Essence; reactive (inauthentic) making it difficult to know what authentic action would be.  Without a connection to our Essential Selves, we do not have a spontaneous and free sense of who we are, and we feel empty and unimportant.  In place of enjoying our work and our relationships; we feel angry, envy and fear; not generosity and magnanimity.  Then, since we do not understand and value ourselves, we slide toward devaluing others (Almaas, 1996).   How many times as a college administrator and as a faculty member, I found myself defending some action for fear I would appear weak, indecisive or inadequate.  My ego took over, and my sense of my inner self flew off to some place where I could not connect to it.  I found myself de-valuing the thoughts and work of another, when all the while I was really questioning my own.

      Many of us are afraid to share our vulnerabilities and try to push through with only our heads, conspicuous accomplishment, and our positional (or will) power to direct others.   One of many important lessons about facing my own shadow came during an Outward Bound experience as part of a leadership program.  My fear of heights and thus of rock climbing and rappelling was so great, I dissolved into a puddle of tears when my turn came to perform.  The Outward Bound instructor coached me ever so gently.  She let me dissolve.  She encouraged me to not do the activity, and said that perhaps my edge was to not do it just because everyone else was doing it.  I acknowledged my intense fear, I felt the feelings as deeply as possible and then moved through it.  The instructor was then able to tenderly coach me, step by step, through the process of rappelling down the 500 foot rock.  Until I acknowledged the darkness of my fear, I was unable to take the first step through it.  One of the things I learned from that experience was the importance of acknowledging and witnessing my shadow side, feeling it all the way, and then moving through it.  This acceptance of our imperfections allows us to ask for help when we need it.  When we acknowledge our mistakes, others are more willing to forgive us, and accepting our own imperfections helps us to be more humble and tolerant of others (Wang, 2006).  An important factor about which I was reminded by the instructor, is that I had an experienced belayer who was prepared to take care of me should I slip.  This was also true of my top staff and of my board of trustees.  When I asked for help, they were mostly there to support me.

     Self knowledge about our all our strengths and our weaknesses are important.  The leader is not able to do all things alone, and when we attempt to do or be something that is not a part of who we are at our core, we may look good for a while, and we cannot sustain it.  The truth that we are exceeding our limits will eventually become visible and may even have negative results, though we are trying to do good deeds.  When I try to do things that are not a part of my list of strengths, (that are not of my Essence), way will close behind me (Palmer, 2000). Understanding the truth about ourselves helps us to know when to hold to our values and when we are asked to change and it’s time to let go. 

     Leaders who demonstrate self-mastery know when to change, when to hold to their values, when to add to them and when to let go.  When we aren’t conscious that we are attempting to do something not in our nature (our Essence) and when we don’t let go, it has a way of letting go of us.  At times when we aren’t conscious, we can do damage to others.  We need to KNOW.  We need to know when to call in our competent belayers (our staff and colleagues), and we need to know when to rely on our values.  We also need to know when the values have shifted in our work environment or when the power shifts and have the courage to walk away so we do not attempt to do things not a part of our Essential Self.  The time we take to listen to our Essential Self in peace and quiet nourishes and prepares us for those times when we are under pressure.

     Mastery involves paying close attention to what our Essential Self is saying to us which includes the ability and the time for reflection and balance.   Sometimes it seems impossible to hear our Essential Self speak because our ego is speaking so loudly.  Melody Beattie gives excellent advice when she suggests that some parts of our lives are like driving in the fog on a winding road when we can see only as far as our headlights beam.  Although we can only see a few feet ahead of ourselves, we can trust; we can listen to our heart and guidance will come. 

    An example of this comes from my conversations with jazz musicians.  They have told me about the way they compose lyrics or music.  They tend to be in touch with the inner core of themselves, that Essential part of themselves they experience on a regular basis that enlivens them to be a musician.  So they may be driving down the road and a song comes to them.  They simply pull over to the side of the road and start composing.   Leaders can be like that when it comes to resolving conflict, for example.  They may not know what they are going to do about a specific conflict situation, and if they have a habit of reflection and of being in touch with their Essential Self, the knowledge of how to deal with the conflict will come to them at exactly the right moment.  When we have created a habit of being present to ourselves and to listening for our Essence, we can trust what we hear.  We can do the small thing, take one step, and go as far as we can see.  Then we can go back to our heart, and listen again and we’ll hear the next step (Beattie, 1998).  Trusting in what our heart says, or our Essence, is a commitment that begins not with our will, but with our willingness.  When we listen to our inner voice that helps to guide us on our life’s journey, we are able to stand in a state of surrender, knowing that whatever we need at any given moment will be available to us.   (Jaworski, 1996).  This surrender is about listening to ourselves.  We also need to listen to others.

    This listening also involves listening in a new way to others.  Sometimes called deep listening, it requires truly appreciating (truly SEEING) another person and then acknowledging our appreciation for what they do, who they are and their impact on us.  This kind of appreciative listening, both to ourselves and to others, creates an environment safe for dialogue and safe for individuals to speak from their heart about what is important to them.  This kind of listening honors the Essence of the other and portrays a genuine desire to elicit the contribution of another and a willingness to be influenced by colleagues rather than a sense of judgment and assessment of another’s contribution.

    My most important lesson regarding this kind of listening came relatively late in my leadership career and early in my presidency.  Severe criticism arose about a very powerful person who reported to me.  I met with her and described the criticism and she, of course, became anxious.  To protect herself, she used her power to turn others against me.  I began to realize this could be a really short term presidency if I didn’t do something fairly soon.  I worried about it, thought about it a lot and, I’m sure acted pretty defensively.  Then, one night, I awoke in the middle of the night.  For some reason (I now believe my Essential Self was guiding me) I turned on the light, walked over to my bookshelf and picked out a book called Elegant Choices, Healing Choices (Sinetar, 1988).  I opened it to this concept:  When you are in conflict with another person, do not focus on the conflict or on their weaknesses.  Focus on their strengths!  The next day was our annual holiday party, and I walked over to her and put my hand on her arm.  I just began to point out and to thank her for the several very important things she had recently accomplished.  She took my arm and walked me over to the side of the room out of ear-shot and in view of the entire room, and said, “You feel better about me, and I feel better about you too”.  At her evaluation later in the spring, this person commented she didn’t quite understand what had happened, and she  was aware things had changed between us, and she really liked working with me.  I shared with her my journey around our relationship, and we began to use the story as an example of how appreciating the value of others can create a community of trust and not just a place to work.  This, then, is the deeper territory of leadership – collectively listening to what is wanting to emerge in our organization, and then having the courage to do what is required (Jaworski, 1996).

     Discipline is crucial to self mastery.  Yoga, running and other daily exercise, reading poetry and reflecting on it, journaling, and meditating are a few examples of a daily kind of discipline.  In maintaining a discipline on a regular basis, we support our growth in authenticity.  One disciplined approach used now by many educational institutions guided by Parker Palmer, is to hold regular retreats that use many of the above strategies to assist educators in regaining contact with their inner teacher, their Essence.   Richland College of the Dallas Community College District, for example, asks each new person hired to sign a contract they will participate in three of their retreats.  The trust established at Richland through this discipline has blossomed into many innovative programs and an extraordinary level of quality as is evidenced by their achieving the coveted Baldridge Award for quality.

Mastering our ego and our physical bodies is an essential preparation for our leadership in service to our organizations.  Once we are in touch with our Essential Selves, we gradually act from that place more and more, and we can truly extend ourselves to others in a way that portrays our sense of service rather than control in a way that comes from our Essence rather than from our ego.  This has a powerful impact on those we wish to lead, and it is imperative as both a model and a safe space for others to speak from their hearts.

Creating Space for the Essence of Others

Appreciative Leadership

    The personal preparation for leadership that comes from self mastery opens the way for an appreciative leadership application in our organizations.  Most of us hope, when we join the academic community, we will engage with our colleagues around issues of substance.  We all aspire to the profound aspects of our fields and to the mission of the community college movement and we expect to talk with others about them, to build on our own knowledge and to create something wonderful together.  Too often, we become caught in the web of funding, enrollment, program success, accountability, and the vagaries of rapid change.  A leader is tempted to become directive, to function from her mind instead of her heart and to neglect the hearts of her colleagues.  The hearts of colleagues can appear to be rigid and unwilling to change and innovation appears to be stunted.  While it is real that mundane issues are important, and while it is true that some hearts can be unwilling to change, and research does suggest the importance of leaders to employ a variety of approaches (Goff, 2003).  There is also another reality.

The other reality is, many faculty and staff would welcome the opportunity to engage in a dialogue where they could bring their hearts and their contributions to increase institutional vitality.  In workshops I have conducted in many parts of this country, administrators and faculty have expressed this desire.  If they believed they could actually make a contribution to a more authentic life within the institution; and if they felt they would be appreciated for their effort, faculty and staff would participate in conversations of substance and consequence. When we, as leaders, genuinely appreciate the contributions of others it is evident, and colleagues feel safe to speak from their heart.  It is the leader’s role to create the environment and to organize the space so that dialogue around both the meaningful and the mundane can occur.

Creating an Appreciative Community

    In an appreciative community, people appreciate one another!.  Creating an appreciative community involves bringing together a group of like-minded individuals who are free, in a safe environment, to speak from their hearts about the things that matter most to them.  The word appreciative connotes a strength-based approach to leading an organization.  When I appreciate my colleagues, I identify what they are doing right and then build on those positive resources to create meaningful and enhanced results.  An appreciative approach increases organizational abilities to improve, strengthen and foster collaboration. 

Both (Wheatley, 2004) who could represent the (Bolman, 1995) leadership of stature and (Argyris, 1996) who could represent their leadership of problem solving are highly regarded thinkers around leadership issues.  Both express the same philosophy around creating a community of colleagues who speak from their heart in a safe environment.

    Wheatley, applying the principles of quantum physics to leadership, describes a few basic principles that guide the way living organisms form communities in the scientific world.  She applies these principles to human communities.  For example, people change when they feel a need; when they are so disturbed by information they release their hold on current beliefs and are willing to create new meanings.  In addition, every living system chooses whether or not it wants to change.  If people do not believe what is being said is important, they ignore the desired change or they may even undermine it.  These tendencies could be called benevolent neglect or malicious compliance.  Sometimes good people in an organization are ready and willing to do good work, contribute their ideas and take responsibility and leaders hold them back (Wheatley, 2004).

    An example of good people being ready and willing to contribute and take responsibility occurred for me during my presidency.  As a college, we implemented a key strategic initiative around student success.  We hired consultants to help identify our gaps, everyone in the college worked to develop campus-based plans to bridge those gaps and we had quantitative goals for increasing student completion, graduation and transfer.  After several months, I was surprised and delighted to discover a group of dedicated individuals had self-organized around enrollment management.  The team traveled to all seven campuses on a regular basis to initiate dialogue, identify areas where they might support and assist and to bring a college-wide focus to each individual campus’s student success initiative.  I felt proud and so excited at this creative activity.  To my embarrassment I have also been part of that other kind of leadership. 

    In the late 1990’s when on-line courses began to burgeon, we told our faculty to refrain from offering any courses over the internet until the college determined it’s particular niche.  In truth, faculty members quietly added on-line components to their courses and surreptitiously prepared for full on-line courses long before administrators were ready to support the concept.  This could not exactly be called malicious compliance.  Perhaps it is devious or creative compliance!

    Argyris uses his research to illustrate that when resistance to change occurs there is a feeling among those addressed that if there is a need for change, then they must be doing something wrong, There is consequently a common defense used by people:  Rich people, poor people; the well educated, the uneducated; the west the far east – all people are the same – they resort to face saving tactics in the threat of embarrassment. The behaviors may be different, but the “theory in use” is the same – save face.   Argyris’ solution is to bring people together around information and assist them to understand the need for action, and the need for acting together.  The message is the same for both Wheatley and Argyris:  Create communities of shared interest and common concerns.  An appreciative approach to sharing data is also crucial.

    How we deliver information i.e. data, is also relevant.  Need is created by data, and at the same time the data itself can be threatening.  Common responses to data include: “That study was flawed”, or “Those data are not accurate because the study did not include (you fill in the blank!)”.  I have discovered it is also possible to use data in an appreciative manner by gathering data illustrating how well an organization is doing in some areas.  Appreciative information can truly create a community of support and a community of trust, and an organization is energized by building on a successful past for an even more successful future (Cooperrider, 1990).

Creating a Community of Trust

    Communities organize around shared meanings, values, goals, desires and plans.  Discovering shared interests changes relationships and people.  Old grudges get left behind and people seek out one another to get help for their interest.  Meaning is what motivates people, and leaders are in a position to create situations where people have an opportunity to organize around their shared interests and in doing so, create a sense of meaning around their work.  Leaders create opportunity and time for people to talk together about why we do this work.  People need opportunities to bump up against one another and share their information with one another.  When those opportunities abound, different people see different things and new ways of approaching any issue arise in a mutually beneficial network.  Information belongs to everyone, and purpose belongs to everyone, and choices made are those which many can support (Wheatley, 2004).

    There are many techniques for organizing communities of meaningful dialogue, or communities of trust.  Monica Manning describes several of these in an essay called Creating Conversations.  Appreciative Inquiry, Future Search, Open Space Technology, Strategic Conversations, World Café, and Real time Strategic Change are all approaches that assist colleges to create safe communities of trust, like mindedness, and shared meaning.   Each approach allows for individual and community inclusion, greater innovation, resolving long-term issues, and generating institutional vitality (Manning, 2005)

    Another opportunity for creating a community of trust is shaped by Parker Palmer.  In this kind of Circle of Trust, faculty and staff come together to support one another in their efforts to listen to and to hear their Essential Self or their inner teacher speak.   Faculty and staff at many colleges around the country are coming together to read poems and essays and to dialogue about the feelings and meanings they evoked and consequently the things that are most meaningful in life.  They tell their stories and ask one another honest and open questions, and all of these metaphorical activities assist the shy Essence or inner teacher to make itself known and to speak to us in silence (Palmer, 2004).

    Colleges engaging in this kind of Circle of Trust are experiencing a burst of vitality and productivity and excellence.  Again, Richland Community College, a member of the Dallas County Community College District, is an example par excellence of a community of trust.  Staff members participate in Circle of Trust retreats, form many different kinds of dialogue communities and in general have an appreciative environment for all constituents of the college.  In 2006, Richland College won the prestigious national Baldridge Award for excellence in education.

Richland College exemplifies leadership that opens space for conversations that need to happen, creates a climate of possibility and innovation, even in the midst of change and anxiety and brings the right people and the right conditions together to engage around complex problems.


    If we are to truly create and maintain institutions of vitality and creativity, there are required elements.  First, a leader needs to understand the source of her strength and vitality, and then she needs to be brutal about mastering her shadow.  The source of our shadow is our ego.  The source of our vitality and creativity is our Essence.  Once the leader has begun the journey to experience and act from Essence, for it is a journey not a destination, he can begin to create an appreciative environment where others can be safe to explore and express their Essential Selves.

    Since the journey is arduous and difficulty, it is tempting to say, “Oh really”, this can’t be done.  However what it takes is commitment…commitment to self mastery, to living from our Essence and to engaging others.  Once a leader is committed to the journey, a flow of meaning develops.  People begin to gather around, and a community of dialogue forms.  When leaders surrender to their Essence, they exert an enormous attractiveness – not because  they are special, but because constituents are attracted to authentic presence and to a future that is full of possibilities (Jaworski, 1996).  Once we are committed a flow of events evolve from the commitment.  All kinds of things occur in our favor; unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no leader could have dreamed come our way.  “We are attracted to what is already ours in secret. Thus passionate anticipation transforms what is indeed possible into dreamt-for reality” (Goethe, 2006).

List of References

Almaas, A. H. (1996). The point of existence. Berkeley: Diamond Books.

Argyris, C. (1996). Action research.

Beattie, M. (1998). Codependent's guide to the twelve steps. New York: Fireside.

Bolman, L. G., Deal Terrence E. (1995). Leading with soul (First ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Braham, B. (1999-2004). Tips on self mastery. Columbus.

Cashman, K. (1998). Authentic leadership. Leadership from the Inside Out   Retrieved July 26, 2005

Cooperrider, D. L. (1990). Positive image, positive action:  The affirmative basis of organizing in s. Srivastva & d.L. Cooperrider(eds.), appreciative management and leadership:  The power of positive thought and action in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goethe, J. W. (2006). The naked truth quotes: Aspirennies.com.

Goff, D. G. (2003). What do we know about good community college leaders:  A study in leadership trait theory and behavioral leadership theory (Research/Technical Report). Florida: ERIC.

Jaworski, J. (1996). Synchronicity, the inner path of leadership (First ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Leadership, C. f. A. (2005). Tools for practice.

Leadership, S. I. f. A. (2006). What guides us: Shambala Institute.

Management, C. S. o. (2006). Authentic leadership:  Coaching, coaching and ethics: Carlson School of Management.

Manning, M. (2005). Creating conversations of consequence:  An introduction: Nova Learning.

Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let your life speak (First ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Palmer, P. J. (2004). A hidden wholeness:  The journey toward an undivided life (First ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Sinetar, M. (1988). Elegant choices, healing choices.

Susan Skjei, w. M. W., Barbara Lawton, Micki McMillan, and Guest Faculty. (2006). Authentic leadership:  15 week certificate: Naropa Institute.

Wang, J. (2006). Academic leadership in theory and in action:  A personal reflection (pp. 54): Fielding Graduate University.

Wheatley, M. J. (2004). Finding our way:  Leadership for an uncertain time (First ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.